MALHEUR COUNTY, Oregon – A 2.1-million-acre wilderness proposal here includes breathtaking red rock canyons, prime habitat for sage grouse and the largest herd of California bighorn sheep in the country.
But several roadblocks stand in its way.
A stakeholder committee formed by local leaders unanimously voted against the idea. And so far, no one in Oregon’s congressional delegation has agreed to take the essential step of turning the proposal into a wilderness bill.
Even if the proposal does make it to Congress, getting it passed is another uphill battle.
Creating wilderness has gotten noticeably harder since the Wilderness Act made it possible in 1964. A whopping 85 percent of the wilderness that exists in the U.S. was created before 1990. Wilderness designations have dropped off since then, and now they’re at a near standstill.
There are 33 wilderness bills pending before Congress right now, according to Alan Rowsome, a policy advocate with the Wilderness Society. But only one wilderness bill has passed in the past five years.
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“I think the gridlock in Congress is most of the culprit here,” he said. “There are still many wilderness bills that get nearly to the finish line every year and are caught as part of broader partisan disagreement that unfortunately I think holds a lot of those bills hostage.”
Rowsome says as more of the country gets developed, it gets harder to find places that everyone agrees should be protected as wilderness. But for the places awaiting designation, getting wilderness bills through Congress is a bigger roadblock than it has been in the past.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., says it’s “definitely much, much harder” to get wilderness bills through the Senate these days.
“Part of it is how easy it is to block something,” he said. “And second, of course, there are powerful special interests who often are lined up on the other side, and they’ll say things like ‘Oh, we don’t need any more of these kinds of places. Oh, we already have enough.’”
But, he says, in his 33 years in Congress, it’s never been easy to pass wilderness bills.
“I don’t know of a single wilderness bill that wasn’t a very tough, hand-to-hand kind of battle,” he said.
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Local Battles Come First
In many places across the Northwest, the battle over wilderness starts long before a bill gets to Congress. With proposals including Washington’s Olympic wilderness, Idaho’s White Cloud wilderness and Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands wilderness, the first fight is for local support.
In the communities surrounding the Owyhee Canyonlands, most locals aren’t convinced their backyard needs wilderness protection to stay wild and untrammeled.
Listen to an audio report from the Owyhee Canyonlands:
Advocates with the Oregon Natural Desert Association say the protections built into the Wilderness Act – requiring roadless wild lands free from motorized travel and mechanized equipment – will prevent disturbance on a huge expanse of sagebrush steppe habitat. But many in the local community don’t want to see the roads to their favorite places closed off. Supporters of wilderness say they’re worried about impacts from large-scale mining, oil and gas development and reckless ATV drivers tearing up the landscape. Opponents worry that a wilderness designation will restrict access for elderly and disabled people, emergency services, firefighters and ranchers who rely on the millions of acres of public lands in the county to graze their cows.
Tim Davis grew up in Adrian, Oregon, where he had a constant view of the Owyhee country. He likens that landscape to his childhood home, and he wants a wilderness designation to keep it the way it was when he explored it as a kid. “When you grow up and you want to go back to your childhood home, you want to see it the way it was when you were growing up,” he said. Others in his community see the Owyhee as their backyard too, he said. “But they feel more like ‘Don’t mess with my house. Don’t mess with my backyard,’” he said. “And the others are saying, ‘No, let’s protect our backyard so we don’t have our backyard screwed up.’”
Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe grew up riding the Owyhee country on horseback. He’s floated the Owyhee River in the spring when the rapids are roaring and in the summer and fall when it’s lazy and peaceful.
He said he loves the Owyhee country as much as anyone, and he wants it to stay the way it is. But he’s worried about maintaining public safety if 2 million acres of the landscape become roadless wilderness. He also wants to make sure local people can get to their favorite places as they always have.
“I just hate to see it locked up to where it is so restrictive that not many people get to see it or use it,” he said.
Wolfe said he recognizes the threats from off-road vehicles. But he thinks managers and law enforcement are doing a good job of protecting the land as it is.
“I’m opposed to people just running amok in the desert and tearing the land up,” Wolfe said. “Even though we oppose wilderness designation, we still do everything we can to preserve the land as it is.”
What Does A Wilderness Designation Do?
Chris Hansen, who’s working with the Owyhee Canyonlands wilderness campaign, said one reason he supports a wilderness designation is because it would prevent large-scale mining on tracts that don’t already have existing claims.
There’s already a gold mine proposed to the north of the proposed wilderness area and a uranium mine proposed to the south.
“The longer we put off designating that wilderness, the more the threats begin to claw at the edges and get into the heart of the Owyhee,” he said.
Hansen said there are a lot of misunderstandings within the local community about what exactly a wilderness designation would do.
“A lot of people think when you have wilderness you put a gate and a lock on everything and no one is able to go in and do anything,” he said. “That’s just not the case.”
Hansen said Oregon Natural Desert Association hasn’t decided which roads within the proposed wilderness area would be closed, and many established roads will remain open as dividers between wilderness units. He also said wilderness won’t prevent grazing.
“The Wilderness Act grandfathers in grazing rights,” he said. “Ranchers are able to tend to their grazing in the same way they have before the wilderness designation if those ways are the best way for the resources.”
Skepticism Fuels Opposition
Malheur County rancher Bob Skinner said he doesn’t trust Hansen’s claim that grazing won’t be affected by a wilderness designation. He’s the public lands director for the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, and his family has been in southeast Oregon since the gold rush back in the 1860s.
Skinner has more than a thousand cows spread out over his own land and some of the public land proposed for wilderness. The landscape here is so vast and rugged, he uses an airplane to check on them.
He says wilderness sounds romantic, but the legal terms attached to it make it risky for people who rely on public land.
“I see no positives,” he said. “We’re going to fight this for everything we’re worth.”
His perspective comes from years of fighting the Oregon Natural Desert Association in court over grazing issues. He says before Congress put a “wild and scenic” designation on a stretch of the Owyhee River, Oregon’s congressional delegation assured him that it wouldn’t impact grazing.
The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act has similar language to the Wilderness Act that allows grazing to continue at its current level. But once the Owyhee River was designated wild and scenic, ONDA used those new legal protections to sue the Bureau of Land Management and remove grazing from certain places.
So, Skinner says, he doesn’t believe ONDA’s claim that grazing will continue unrestricted after the wilderness designation.
“I absolutely don’t believe them,” he said. “I’ve been there before.”
Compromise on the way?
Veterinarian Julie Weikel has spent a lot of her life exploring the Owyhee country and even named her daughter after it. Now she’s on the board of the Oregon Natural Desert Association.
“This is a chunk of country that’s not too damaged yet,” she said. “Because it’s desert country, it can be easily harmed.”
At 68, Weikel said she doesn’t want to wait too long for that protection.
“At my age, I’d like to see this in my lifetime, darn it,” she said. “I’d like to be able to tell my grandkids, to tell them someday, ‘Yeah, I tried to help keep this place for you guys. Now take care it, darn it.’”
Weikel said many of the people who oppose the wilderness proposal still want to protect the Owyhee, so it might just be a matter of finding the best way to do that.
“If it’s wilderness, great,” she said. “But there are other vehicles that might do that.”
Sheriff Wolfe says he sees room for compromise.
“We are willing to say there are parts of the Owyhee canyon lands or the Owyhee canyon that we could sure support as a wilderness area,” he said. “But it’s going to have to be scaled back significantly from 2 million acres.”
There’s more in our series on 50 years of wilderness.
Tuesday: The legacy of the Wilderness Act
Thursday: Why it’s harder than ever to create wilderness